Metaphor

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Language is a remarkable thing. We can walk into a room filled with total strangers and get along fine by simply talking, using sounds strung together in a conventional, agreed upon manner to convey a particular meaning. The experience is so common that we don’t even think about it.

In his monumental work, The Golden Bough, James Frazer demonstrates the importance of language by describing its corruption. There was an enforced taboo amongst certain tribes against using any word or sound that resembled the name of a dead person. If a person had been named "Tree," for example, then the tribe had to invent a different word to designate that plant after "Tree" died. Since the tribe’s normal naming vocabulary was confined to the everyday objects, plants, and creatures in their environment, their language totally changed with every generation, leaving them without any history, or any sense of history, whatever. No living person could know what his grandfather knew, because his grandfather and his grandfather’s language were both forgotten. I imagine that if this society were threatened by a recurrent natural disaster every third generation, such as a flood, they would have no word for flood, they would always be unprepared, and they would have to cope with it each time as a new disaster.

But it’s impossible for me to imagine living in such a society, even though I know we have made similar mistakes in our own society. Before Thomas Paine came along, for example, nobody thought of Kings as "crowned ruffians," and the idea of living without one was nearly unthinkable, despite the fact that many people acted like they could.

Murray Rothbard describes American colonial behavior in his brilliant collection, Conceived In Liberty. The Pennsylvania Dutch headed for the hills, carved their farms out of the forest, and then refused to pay "rent" to the King’s "proprietor," William Penn. Were they denouncing monarchy? No, not in words, though in deeds, yes, they were. I would say that they had no clear idea of denouncing monarchy until Common Sense came their way.

Language is largely constructed of metaphors, that is of words that come to represent our mind’s-eye view of reality. The word "flower" is not that pretty plant in the garden, but is only our word for it, or as one writer liked to tease, we don’t know what it is, but we call it a flower. What about words like "government," "freedom," "liberty?" They are each metaphors for some aspect of reality, but when we go looking for that conventional, agreed upon reality in a dictionary, we usually find another set of metaphors that depend upon each other for definition, which leaves us with no clear definition at all.

Thus do we confound "government" with the "State," holding a variety of pictures in mind when using the words, pictures like Congress in Session, the White House, military invasion, Old Glory, Ruby Ridge, Waco, and maybe some buddies down at the VFW. It could be anything, but always there is a hint of coercion in these pictures, something we take for granted. Some of us like the idea, and some of us don’t.

Do we think of the word "government" when we go to the shopping mall? Probably not, yet the evidence of "governance" is there, all around. The place is organized for a purpose, it’s clean and well lighted, it has its own security system and, hidden from view, it has it’s own internal justice system to keep merchants and management playing by their own rules, their contracts. This is, indeed, government without the implied use of force, but we have no word, no metaphor, to refer to it in everyday language, and this is a serious problem.

I first encountered this problem years ago when I was trying to describe what Thoreau called government "that governs not at all." But that isn’t exactly what he meant, and it wasn’t what I meant, and because I had not yet discovered Spencer MacCallum’s The Art of Community, I had to spend a great deal of time and energy beating around the bush. Thoreau was talking about Emerson’s ideal of self-governance to replace traditional coercive institutions, if mankind would ever grow up, while I was talking about self-governing institutions that would not require such ideals, but would only require self-interested, guaranteed, and insured contractual agreements amongst businesses and individuals. But even though we live with this phenomena growing under our noses, we have no metaphor to express it without confusion.

So we curse "government," knowing that we mean coercive political government, and we yearn for something that exists but goes nameless. For myself, in exasperation, I decided to call the first kind "political government" and the second kind "economic government," and even though the latter term is already beginning to be co-opted by the State, for the sake of consistency I’ll stick with that metaphor until somebody suggests something better.

Christopher Mayer began his superb essay on William Graham Sumner with a perfect description of the inherently terminal pathology of the political paradigm for government: "…the seemingly endless attempts to harness the power of the State to further one’s own ends at the expense of other people." This villainy was well understood during the Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and Twentieth Centuries by both the people who opposed it and by the people who practiced it. The latter have achieved ascendance, despite the indisputable record of the principle’s absolute failure for ten thousand years. Like the old tribes, we seem to have a taboo against using the same name for a paradigm that keeps dying, so we change the name from tyranny to dictatorship to monarchy to democracy, from republic to people’s republic to socialist republic, from autocracy to plutocracy to theocracy, all the time talking about the same thing. Take your choice, by any other name, the method of governance that never works, and always fails is political government.

At the same time, we also seem to be unable to name a viable alternative paradigm for governance, although it stares us in the face. There is a standard of human behavior that has enabled our species to survive and to thrive through millennia, and it is not the use of force. We have many discrete metaphors to describe it, including initiative, enterprise, innovation, markets free from theft and harassment, or free-markets, trade free from theft and harassment, or free trade, currency free from cheating and debasement, or gold standard, the quiet possession of property, or private ownership, contractual agreements, private arbitration of differences, and today, the multiple-tenant income property, or shopping mall, that could easily become the proprietary city (or space vehicle society) of the future. We have the metaphors that describe these aspects of reality, but we do not have one single metaphor that describes them all together.

We must find an acceptable metaphor for this completely different kind of governance. Then we can think about the two kinds of governance with ease, and talk about them with conventional, agreed upon meaning. Then we might be able to put one of them permanently to rest, though we must never forget the metaphor we used for it.

Robert Klassen [send him mail] is a retired med tech and writer. Here’s his web site.

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